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Windrush and the making of post-imperial Britain

From fighting for equality to negotiating the legacies of slavery and colonialism, Harry Goulbourne considers the significance of Windrush and how Caribbeans who came to Britain in the post-war period have contributed to building a post-imperial society, which is still in formation today.

In early September 1959 my father returned to Southwell Road, Camberwell in south London with seven children and teenagers from Jamaica. Four of us were brothers, and the others were a cousin and the children of family friends. My father had spent considerable time taking us by taxi from the high mountains of North Clarendon to Spanish Town to ‘take out papers’ (birth certificates) and to Kingston to have photographs taken, buy air-tickets, new clothes and shoes that we would be wearing for the first time.

None of us had any inkling of the significance of our coming to England 59 years ago. As far as we brothers were concerned, the death of our maternal grandfather was the main reason for us to be flying to England to join our parents and older siblings. Our grandfather had been taking care of us in a big wooden mountain house between Belcaras and Cumberland, and our parents found themselves forced to revise their plans of being in Britain for a short time. Little did we know that we were within the whirlwind of momentous events reshaping our world.

Empire Windrush and the significance of post-war migration to Britain

The first of these events had been the docking in June 1948 of Empire Windrush at Tilbury. As is well known, this ship had landed men returning from England after the Second World War to Jamaica. On surveying the employment prospects on the island some of these men decided to return to the ship, which was likely to sail empty back across the Atlantic. They had noted that jobs were available in an England fighting to recover from the ravages of the war. They were joined by women and children, and, as the ship sailed across the Caribbean, more passengers were taken aboard. News of their arrival in Britain was covered by the BBC, Pathé and other media outlets. Although numerous other ships had brought people from the Caribbean before, the landing of the Empire Windrush and its passengers was to mark a significant moment in the building of what we know today as multi-cultural Britain. Consequently, not only the passengers on this ship but others who arrived later from the colonies and Commonwealth have been regarded as ‘the Windrush generation’.

BBC newscript reports on the arrival of the Empire Windrush, 22 June 1948

News scripts prepared for BBC Radio, June 1948

'The former troopship, EMPIRE WINDRUSH, arrived in the Thames last night with five hundred West Indians who have come to work in this country.'

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The furore in British public life during much of 2018 underpins this turning point. But, like most turning points in history, the participants are not usually aware of the significance of the adventure upon which they are cast. Take for example, some of the dramatic moments in our island history:

  • The landing in Kent of the brothers Hengist and Horsa as the Romans were departing in the 4th century AD 
  • King Alfred’s establishment of the Danelaw as a way of integrating Scandinavians in the east of the country
  • The Norman Conquest of 1066
  • The coming of the Huguenots in the 16th century
  • The arrival of Jews as they fled pogroms in 19th-century Eastern Europe and fascist continental Europe in the last century.

In the 20th century, there were any number of other historic moments marked in specific communities that have come to form contemporary post-imperial British society. The partition of India in 1947 led not only to the movements of millions within the Indian sub-continent, but also to significant numbers of people from that region making their way to the UK. Moreover, the ending of British colonial Africa largely as a result of the rise of African nationalism, led to communities of South Asians in Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi, but particularly Uganda, being forced to seek new homes in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. These events have combined to make Britain a diverse but also a highly integrated society.

BBC pamphlet, Going To Britain?

BBC pamphlet, Going To Britain?

This booklet, aimed at ‘West Indians who are considering “Going to Britain” to look for employment’ (p. 5), was published by the BBC Caribbean Service around 1959 when total migration to Britain from the Caribbean peaked.

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However, it is the era of the Windrush landing and post-war migration that we have come to recognise as the thrust away from a relatively mono-cultural to a multi-cultural Britain in which there are contributions from a wide variety of African, Asian, European, but particularly Caribbean societies. Why is this so? There are several reasons, but I will mention just three which I consider to be of vital importance.

Photograph of a woman arriving from the Caribbean, May 1956

Black and white photograph of a woman arriving from the West Indies, May 1956

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1. The Caribbean story

First, it is a little recognised fact that Caribbeans are amongst the world’s first modern, de-tribalised people. We are a combination of peoples mainly from West Africa, but intertwined with people from South Asia, China, the Arab world, and of course, Europe. In the English-speaking Caribbean (more often referred to as the West Indies), peoples from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and heritages met and mixed, so that the typical photograph of a family will display a kaleidoscopic representation of humanity. Of course, this has been the story of the whole of humanity, but the Caribbean story is of recent historic making and significance. Indeed, this transformation is still in formation. This may be particularly so in contemporary Britain, making the British people increasingly mixed, and proud in not being of ‘pure breed’, but satisfied and happy to be just humans.

Photograph of Empire Windrush passengers at Tilbury Docks

Photograph of passengers at Tilbury docks

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Photograph of John Hazel, Harold Wilmot and John Richards at Tilbury Docks, June 1948

Black and white photograph of three men at Tilbury Docks, June 1948

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2. The fight for equality

Second, upon experiencing vicious racial discrimination on our entry to Britain, Caribbeans asserted the fundamental principle that has kept people of African descent in the Americas and Europe alive – the equality of all human beings. Discrimination in the crucial fields of employment, housing, justice and education served to focus attention on these matters. Exclusion from social and spiritual institutions – such as working men's clubs, pubs and churches – led to the formation of their own non-discriminating meeting points.

BBC pamphlet, Going To Britain?

BBC pamphlet, Going To Britain?

This photograph from the late 1950s is captioned 'A friend's home and a prayer'. Facing racial discrimination and exclusion from places such as working clubs, pubs and churches, Caribbean people in Britain formed their own non-discriminating meeting points.

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Flamingo magazine, September 1961

Flamingo Magazine

This photo essay from 1961 follows Joan, a 21-year-old woman from the Caribbean, as she arrives in London and begins to establish her life in the city. On this page, Joan struggles to find a room to rent due to racial discrimination: 'I looked for a room to rent, on the notice boards outside some of the shops. I was hurt to see so many cards said “No Coloureds”.'

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These circumstances enhanced their social practices, and thereby also helped to transcend their specific island identities as they exist in the region itself. In the struggles for equality, Caribbeans of every background (African, Asian, European) drew upon the factors that were common to all who were willing to participate in the building of a post-imperial society. The Caribbean presence and participation are particularly strong in the fields of sports and music, theatre and literature, language change and common styles of living such as fashions and family types.

Photograph of Samuel Selvon, John La Rose and Andrew Salkey by Horace Ové

Together with Kamau Braithwaite, Andrew Salkey and John La Rose founded the Caribbean Artists Movement, an inclusive cultural movement whose members came from across the Caribbean and also included white British associates.

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A particular strength of the Caribbean contribution to Britain that can be attributed to the post-Windrush era is that their assertion of equal rights and justice have not infringed the rights of any other person or community – they were ready to integrate with any new folk they met.

Claudia Jones' Caribbean Carnival Souvenir programme, 1960

Caribbean Carnival programme

In response to the racist violence and riots that swept through Britain in the summer of 1958 – and in particular Notting Hill and Nottingham – Trinidad-born activist and West Indian Gazette founder Claudia Jones started an annual indoor Caribbean carnival. The first, held in January 1959, was subtitled ‘A people's art is the genesis of their freedom’.

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Wha ‘appen Sista, a zine by the Daughters of Harriet Tubman

Wha ‘appen Sista by the Daughters of Harriet Tubman

The Daughters of Harriet Tubman was a collective of Black feminists based in Manchester during the 1970s. Members viewed themselves as continuing the legacy of Black women who ‘have ALWAYS organised to resist the oppression of Black people’.

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While this openness of Caribbeans was welcomed by many, some leaders and spokespersons in the British majority community, particularly from the 1960s to the 1990s, sought to portray this absence of exclusivity as a sign that Caribbeans were devoid of a culture of their own. For example, the politician Enoch Powell asserted that West Indians posed no real threat to British society, because, unlike Asians, Caribbeans had no culture. One anthropologist stressed that Caribbeans had ‘problems’ because they were demanding equality whilst Asians were concerned about their own cultures; one public policy person pointed out that while he admired Asians for their cultures, he could not understand West Indians because they were like the English working classes, making trouble because they had no culture to speak of. In the 1970s, one leading British sociologist, himself of South African background, argued that while Caribbeans were ‘hostile’ to British society, Asians sought ‘accommodation’. It is fortunate that the generations – whether of native British, African, Asian or Caribbean backgrounds – who have inherited the post-imperial culture started by the Windrush generation have rejected the divisive racial and ethnic perspectives of some prominent politicians and academics.

3. The legacies of slavery and colonialism

Third, it must be always remembered that Africans brought to Europe and the Americas between the 16th and 17th centuries had no choice in the destinations of this massive and historic population movement. The Atlantic slave trade involved the participation of African as well as European traders, but the dominant partners were Europeans – they determined where the enslaved were taken. Some ended up in North and some in South America; some of us ended up in Central America and the Caribbean. In the course of time, the majority population in some of these territories came to be of African backgrounds. This was very much so in the English-speaking Caribbean. With the Haitian Revolution against slavery and France at the beginning of the 19th century, the growth of the African populations in the Southern States of the USA and the end of slavery in the British Empire in 1838, Anglo-Caribbeans slowly developed their own distinctive presence and awareness in the world that was emerging.

Toussaint L'Ouverture on horseback

Toussaint L’Ouverture on horseback

A powerful image of Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former slave who helped to fight colonial forces on the island of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) and was a leader of the Haitian Revolution.

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Report on the apprenticeship system in the West Indies by James Williams

Report on the apprenticeship system in the West Indies

After the British abolition of slavery on 1 August 1834 most British colonies imposed an apprenticeship system that required former slaves to work for their masters without compensation for up to six years. Here James Williams, aged ‘about eighteen years old’, recounts his experiences as an apprentice in Jamaica. Williams’ account was instrumental in bringing apprenticeship to an end in 1838 – two years earlier than planned.

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In 1938 this awareness erupted in democratic protests throughout the British Caribbean. As a result, in 1944 Jamaica achieved the most advanced democratic constitution in the British colonies – internal autonomy and universal adult suffrage. In 1957 Ghana’s independence marked the beginning of the end of direct colonialism in Africa. The 1960s became the ‘decade of independence’ in Africa, but this was also true for the Caribbean and Pacific islands.

Trinidad becomes a sovereign nation poster

independence poster for Trinidad, published by HMSO

Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica were the first Caribbean nations to gain independence from Britain in 1962. Intended for a British audience, this poster describes Trinidad’s major industries as well as the growing tourist market.

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This new order was occurring not only in the colonies, but also in the former imperial centres of Britain, France, Belgium and Holland. As the Jamaican poet Louise Bennett expressed this, ‘Englan’ was experiencing ‘Colonization in Reverse’. The peoples from all corners of the Empire were coming home to ‘the Mother Country’. The docking of Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948 marked a new beginning in the history of our 'Island History', as the great war leader and historian Winston Churchill might have said (but could not have done, opposed as he was to the dismantling of the Empire).

Yet in 1959 each of us travelled with a British passport, bearing a stamp in mauve ink saying ‘British Subject: Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies’. At the time we did not know that there was a heated debate in Britain to stop open immigration from the Black colonies, and that this was to result in the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. The 1948 British Nationality Act had established a common British citizenship regime, but the open world that Home Secretary Chuter Ede formalised after several centuries of British ‘muddle through’ and vagueness about ‘Britishness’, Home Secretary Theresa May was to ignore some seven decades later with her ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy.

Strictly speaking, the Windrush era is denoted by the years 1948 to the mid-1960s when the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act took effect and entry became restricted and monitored. But the iconic status or value of the ‘Windrush generation’ has been extended to embrace peoples of different historic, cultural and racial backgrounds. Even migrants from Europe in the turbulent years since the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, have drawn upon Windrush in order to locate their situation within the national debate that has been going on since 2016.

This is because post-imperial Britain is still in formation and the Windrush-era experience marks that moment when the daughters and sons of former slaves, indentured labourers, colonised and other subjugated peoples undertook to expand the boundaries of peoplehood and democratic participation.

Suggested further reading

The Oxford Companion to Black British History, ed. by David Dabydeen, John Gilmore and Cecily Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Goulbourne, Harry, Ethnicity and Nationalism in Post-Imperial Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Goulbourne, Harry, Race Relations in Britain since 1945 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998)

Black Politics in Britain, ed. by Harry Goulbourne (Aldershot: Avebury, 1990)

Heineman, Benjamin, The Politics of the Powerless (London: Institute of Race Relations / Oxford University Press, 1972)

Peach, Ceri, West Indian Migration to Britain: A Social Geography (London: Oxford University Press, 1968)

Phillips, Mike and Phillips, Trevor, Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (London: Harper Collins, 1998)

Rex, John and Tomlinson, Sally, Colonial Immigrants in a British City: A Class Analysis (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979)

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  • Harry Goulbourne
  • Harry Goulbourne is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at London South Bank University. He held senior academic and administrative posts at universities in East Africa, the Caribbean, and England. Focusing on East Africa, the Caribbean and the UK, his research and publications explore issues in political development, ideology, nationalism, diasporas, racial and ethnic identities, migration, and transnational families. A child of the Windrush generation, he has been writing his memoirs, which is a commentary on the decades since 1948.

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